Trade show survival kit: how to make the most of events without breaking down

trade show

Trade shows: love to hate them, can’t live without them.

Trade shows get a bad reputation for multiple reasons: they’re expensive, a drain on your resources, and the ROI isn’t always immediately obvious. As a result many companies are cutting back on the amount of trade shows they’re attending and focusing instead on smaller and more measurable activities.

Yet, despite these negatives, trade shows aren’t going anywhere. Why? Because they still deliver the goods when it comes to:

  • Introducing your brand to a new audience and giving them the opportunity to experience your services or products first hand.
  • Strengthening relationships with partners, suppliers, and customers, leading to better business opportunities in the future.
  • Discovering the latest trends and emerging technologies so that you can better position yourself as a thought leader in your field.
  • Gathering competitive intelligence, with all the key players in one place, to help inspire stronger marketing strategies.

So if you’re preparing for your next run up events, this blog includes a rundown of the key questions to ask yourself to maximise your ROI, a list of 9 essential items to survive your next event, and an FAQ. 

How to prepare for a trade show

Whether you’re a key member of your stand’s organisation or just turning up as part of the sales team, you need a game plan to make your event a success. Rocking up on the day and hoping for the best will be a waste of time for you and your brand.

Instead, here’s a pre-trade show list of questions:

  • What is your budget? You’ve probably already spent a considerable amount on a booth and the conference fees already, but is there an additional budget for collateral (such as ads, giveaways, or tactics to bring a crowd to your trade show stand)?
  • What is your goal? Write down some key goals, whether it’s gathering 100 leads or setting up 20 meetings. Having it set in stone will help you measure your ROI more effectively.
  • What is your strategy? You’ve got a goal and a budget: how will you make the two match? For example, you might consider sending hundreds of LinkedIn InMails in advance to arrange in-person meetings. Alternatively, investing in a speaking slot could ensure higher quality leads. Creating new video assets to showcase your product’s key features is another option, or you may choose to compile a spreadsheet of key exhibitors to engage with at the event. 
  • What is your presentation? Your booth’s messaging needs to match your goals and strategy to be effective. This goes beyond any tag line: what experience are you offering visitors? Will they feel welcome? Can they interact with any part of your booth?
  • What is your external communication? Perhaps you intend to run a social media campaign in parallel or partner with a publication to amplify your presence. 

Don’t worry if you’ve gone about these questions in a different order than above, it’s never too late to go back and make tweaks ahead of your event in order to ensure it’s a success.

Trade show survival kit

As the big day approaches, you might be wondering what could make your life easier. We’ve asked some veterans of the trade show scene for their most essential items so that we can share them with you.

  1. Comfortable shoes

When attending a trade show, it is crucial to have a high-quality pair of comfortable shoes with you. As simple as it may seem, wearing the right pair of shoes can actually enhance your overall trade show experience (…) Plus, with comfortable shoes on your feet, you won’t have to constantly think about how uncomfortable you are and can focus more on networking and exploring the trade show floor.”  Ryan Hetrick, CEO, Epiphany Wellness

  1. Contact management app

“For me, the essential item when attending a trade show is a well-organized, updated contact management application on my phone. It is crucial to keep track of the many people I meet, their backgrounds, and our conversations. 

Sometimes, we just take their cards, but usually, we forget the conversations we have had with them. This app helps me capture business cards, note important details immediately after a conversation, and even set reminders for follow-ups. It has significantly improved my ability to network effectively and maintain valuable connections long after the trade show has ended.” David Rubie-Todd, Co-Founder and Marketing Head, Sticker It

  1. Supply box

A must-have item for attending a trade show is a supply box. This box contains handy tools like duct tape, pens, rubber bands, a stapler, paper clips, scissors, a Swiss Army knife, zip ties, and more. I found that having this supply box with me enhanced my trade show experience. 

Trade shows can be chaotic, and unexpected issues often arise. Having a supply box allows you to quickly address problems. For instance, if your display falls apart or your table cover needs fastening, you can use these tools to fix it on the spot. It ensures that your booth maintains a professional and attractive appearance, even in unexpected situations.” Jessica Shee, Marketing Manager, iBoysoft

  1. Portable charger

“A crucial accessory for any trade show attendee is, undoubtedly, a portable charger. Given the lengthy duration and often exhausting nature of these events, ensuring your gadgets are always powered up is paramount. Not only does a portable charger guarantee that you can stay digitally connected, but it also serves as a networking asset when you’re not near a power source.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a portable charger at a trade show. This modest investment can substantially enhance your overall experience at the event. Sharing your portable charger with someone in need not only saves their day but can also serve as a perfect icebreaker to initiate a conversation and establish a networking connection. As Seneca once said, ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’” Belen Garcia-Saldaña, Marketing Coordinator, Achievable

  1. LED projector

“My must-have item when attending a trade show is an LED projector. This enhanced my trade show experience because I could project sales materials onto any surface, even if it wasn’t accessible by electricity. TVs and monitors weren’t necessary; I could simply project images anywhere with minimal effort. 

Additionally, the projected image was crisp and clear—perfect for catching people’s attention from a distance and drawing them closer for further discussion. All in all, utilizing an LED projector provided me with a unique capacity to stand out among other exhibitors at the event while displaying information in a useful and memorable fashion.” Tasia Duske, CEO, Museum Hack

  1. Camera

“I always bring my camera. I’ve been to a lot of trade shows, and I always take photos. It’s a great way to remember all the people you’ve met, and you can use them to give yourself an idea of what you want your brand to look like.

I’ve also gone back through my photos and used them for inspiration when I’m designing new products or thinking about what my brand should be.” Paul Eidner, Chief Operating Officer, CarnoGel®

  1. Energy bars

“One item I take to every trade show is an energy bar—several, actually. This might sound silly, but you need to keep your strength up. 

Seriously. Trade shows are hard work. Not only are they physical—because you have to be on your feet all day—but the mental drain is incredible. You have to be “on” all day, and the brain power it takes to stay focused and in the zone saps your energy. At least it does for me. That’s why I always toss a couple of energy bars in my backpack. I couldn’t imagine making it through a full day on the floor without them.” John Ross, CEO, Test Prep Insight

  1. Reusable water bottle

“Attending trade shows, my essential item is a reusable water bottle. Trade shows can be exciting yet exhausting, making hydration pivotal for maintaining focus and energy levels. Not only does a reusable bottle remind me to drink regularly, it also cements an image of environmental consciousness, echoing my company’s commitment to sustainability. 

Plus, it saves me from long queues at water stations or the inconvenience of single-use plastics. Essentially, a reusable water bottle is a small item with a huge impact on my productivity and image during the event.” Abid Salahi, Co-Founder and CEO, FinlyWealth

  1. Visuals and samples

“The old adage, “seeing is believing,” rings particularly true in trade shows. If you’re a company like ours that does manufacturing and design, bringing visuals can help elevate your booth from good to great.

Other companies attending the trade show obviously want to see what others have to offer. For them, we bring samples of our most popular and favorite building and design materials. Having added visuals to reinforce what we are describing when talking about our quality and craftsmanship bodes well when discussing potential partnerships.

For individuals who aren’t associated with companies, we bring mini-models of an array of different fireplace shapes and styles for them to see. Painting a picture with words is great, but having models will help customers visualize the product in their own homes. This increases the chance of said customer doing business with you, which is the overarching goal of a trade show.” Sean Coffey, Marketing Manager, Regency Fire

Optimise your next trade show

The key to a successful trade show lies in preparation. Take on board the expert advice above to use your time wisely. If you need help in making sure your trade show will make the right impact and lead to a positive ROI, then don’t hesitate to reach out at hello@isolinecomms.com

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What should be in my trade show survival kit?

Your kit helps you prepare for every mishap. Here are a few suggestions of what to include:

  • Double sided duct tape, yellow tac, zip ties, string, and rubber bands
  • Pens, staplers, paper clips, and scissors
  • Bottle opener (for wine and beer)
  • Pins and safety pins
  • Protein bar and bottle of water
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Travel sized lip balm and moisturising cream
  • Basic first aid items (band aids, pain relievers, antiseptic wipes etc)
  • Portable charger, and converter plugs if needed
  • Extension cord

How can I effectively plan my schedule for a trade show?

Plan ahead by looking at the schedule of speakers and your own schedule at the stand. There’s never enough time to see every event, especially when networking opportunities crop up, so pick your top two events and set yourself reminders to allow plenty of time.

What are the best networking strategies for introverts?

As an introvert myself, I hear you! My most successful events have come from planning ahead and arranging meetings at the trade show through LinkedIn in advance, whether with prospects or other speakers. Having pre-arranged meetings takes the stress out of the event.

If your trade show, such as MWC Barcelona, don’t automatically give out lanyards, then go and apply for them. Having a lanyard and your role on display will also help you as it will encourage other people to approach you, as well as give you access to specific networking opportunities.

Finally, take a deep breath and try to reframe networking as getting to know new people rather than selling yourself. By focusing your attention on how interesting other people are, you will not only put them at ease but also warm yourself up.

How do I follow up with contacts after the event?

It’s a good idea to contact people you’ve met 2-4 days after the event. It gives them enough time to recover, but not so much that they’ve forgotten you.

The key to a successful follow-up is to remember details about your contact. Making notes during the event really helps, whether it’s recalling a key conversation or knowing which service a contact was intrigued about.

Keep the follow-up light with a single call to action rather than overwhelming your contact with information.

How do I choose the right trade show for my business?

So glad you asked! We’ve actually put together a list of content marketing events to attend in 2024!

In all seriousness, you need to do your research about the event and the type of audience it attracts. Is the audience a match with your target audience? Does the event have a solid reputation in the industry? 

What are the essential elements of an engaging booth design?

Your exhibition booth needs to align with your brand, attract attention in a crowded space, and feel welcoming to your audience.

How can I measure the success of my trade show participation?

To measure success, you need to have set yourself goals in the first place. Otherwise you are measuring nothing against nothing. 

Are trade shows still relevant in the age of digital marketing?

Nothing replaces human-to-human interaction, which is why trade shows are still a powerful tool in the marketing and sales kit. 

What budget-friendly tactics can I use for trade show marketing?

You don’t have to spend big to create an attractive booth or interactive elements, but in order to be creative and effective, a longer lead up time to the event is helpful. As the old adage goes, you can be fast and good, cheap and good, or cheap and fast, but all three are not possible.